Falling is the most common cause of accidental injury for adults aged 65 or older and can be the cause of functional decline, social withdrawal, anxiety and depression.
For older adults who are anxious to maintain their independence and stay physically and socially active, that’s hard news to hear. One way to take control of your health and lower your risk of falling is to improve your balance, which tends to decline with age. If you haven’t been active recently, speak to your doctor about exercising to improve your stability. Once he gives the OK, add balance-boosting exercises to your daily routine.
Warm up briefly to prepare your muscles and joints for activity. From a seated or standing position, maintain a relatively straight back and march your feet in place for three to five minutes to raise your core body temperature and ready the muscles for exercise. Pump your arms or do large arm circles as you march if you can do so comfortably without feeling off-balance.
Continue with a set of dynamic ankle circles to activate your core and loosen your ankle joints. Sit or stand with your fingertips on the back of a chair for support. Raise your right foot slightly off the floor and slowly rotate it 10 times to the right. Reverse direction and rotate the foot another 10 times. Repeat with your left foot. As your balance improves, progress from sitting to standing with light support. From there, progress to standing without support.
Do one-legged stands, the quintessential balance exercise. Stand behind a sturdy chair, grasping the chair lightly for support. Draw your right foot up toward your left knee. Hold the position for 10 seconds, lower the foot and repeat with the left leg. Repeat for three to five times on each leg. Progress by increasing the duration of each repetition, crossing your arms over your chest, closing your eyes or balancing on an uneven surface, such as a small cushion. Bump up the challenge still more by writing the alphabet in the air with your raised foot or tossing a ball back and forth with a friend without lowering the foot to the floor.
Walk heel to toe. Move to one end of a long wall. Stand arm’s-length from the wall and turn so one shoulder is adjacent to the wall. Step forward on your right foot. Slowly shift your weight forward and step onto your left foot, touching your left heel directly to the toes of your right foot. Continue walking heel to toe until you’ve traveled the length of the wall. Keep your focus forward and walk your fingertips along the wall for light support. When you master the basic exercise, progress to walking backward, crossing your arms over your chest, closing your eyes or turning your head from side-to-side as you walk. To further boost difficulty, introduce a cognitive challenge. The American Council on Exercises suggests counting backward from 100 in increments of three while doing the heel-toe walk.
Boost core and leg strength. Use a combination of exercises involving dumbbells, resistance bands, ankle weights or your own body weight. Build your calves, for example, with simple calf raises. Grasping a dumbbell with one or both hands, slowly raise and lower your heels eight to 12 times. Strap on a pair of ankle weights and work your quadriceps from a seated position. Keeping your back straight and your buttocks firmly on your chair, slowly extend your right knee. Hold briefly, then bend the knee and lower the foot to the floor. Repeat eight to 12 times before switching legs. Use standing rear leg extensions with a resistance band or ankle weights to work your hamstrings and one- or two-legged chair squats to work your abs, hips, back and legs. Complete eight to 12 reps on each leg.
Stretch your lower limbs. Tight muscles in your lower body can hinder movement, cause an awkward gait and lead to stumbling. For example, sit on a chair and extend your right leg in front of you. Loop a resistance band or old necktie around the sole of the foot and gently pull back on the ends of the band. You’ll feel a stretch in your right calf muscle. Use other basic stretches to lengthen your hip flexors, hamstrings and quads. Repeat stretches up to four times on each side.
Participate in a Tai Chi class. Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese mind-body practice, promotes better balance by increasing leg strength, flexibility, joint range of motion and improving reflexes. Research appearing in the “New England Journal of Medicine” indicates that Tai Chi training can reduce balance impairments in patients with mild to moderate Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Peter Wayne, research director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, claims Tai Chi can help a senior feel more grounded and improve his sense of where his body is in space, both of which are useful for preventing falls.